I think that most racecar drivers would agree that the most intense moment of any race is waiting at the start line. You never notice how terribly uncomfortable that race gear is, until you're at the start line. It's hot. It's claustrophobic. And undeniably, I always feel like I need to pee when I'm sitting at the start line. Always. It's also usually the moment that I admit to myself that yeah, I am crazy. This year, at the 90th running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, our division sat at the start line for close to four hours on race day. It was the closest to torture that I have ever been.
Earlier in the day, when it came time for the Time Attack division to move to the start line, I gave my husband of a month and a half a kiss as he climbed into his racecar. We promised to see each other at the summit. The crew offered me water, and I got myself into my 1991 Audi. It must have been about one or two in the afternoon at the point. Looking back, I didn't know what I was going to be in for that afternoon.
Even from the beginning, we knew that Pikes Peak was going to be different this year. There was no denying that fact. 2012 would be the first year that the 12.42-mile course was entirely paved to the finish line at over 14,110 feet. Over the years, the pavement had transformed each of the 156 turns, and this year, that transformation was finally complete. 2012 was my third year competing on the mountain, but it was my first year driving without a navigator. I was also competing in an entirely different car. I was driving an Audi that my husband, Valentin, and I purchased for $300 and prepped for the event. The Audi affectionately earned the nickname, Sergei. He was more than just a car. He was our last nine months, my first car build, and our first kiddo.
The first competitor in class, Rhys Millen, left the start line. It was go-time. Rhys had been running strong all week, and less than ten minutes later we got word from the finish line that Rhys had just broken the all time record on the mountain. The motorcycles had run earlier in the morning, and with both Ducati driver's safely at the summit, Ducati kindly offered their umbrella girls to shade the sun while we waited our turn. The mood at the start line was incredible as everyone celebrated Rhys' victory.
When I am sitting strapped into the car, I have very limited vision, I can see just what is directly in front of me. I would see different cameras pop in front of the windshield with flashes. The fans and the officials would walk in front of the car and giving me thumbs up.
The celebration mood quickly changed when another Time Attack driver, Jeremy Foley, and his co-driver had a serious incident near the summit of the mountain. Jeremy and his co-driver rolled a dozen times off the road and down the rocky slope at devil's playground. We heard that race officials called a flight for life for their rescue. As everyone hoped the best for Jeremy and Yuri, we all couldn't deny that it was getting late quickly and the storm clouds started to loom. While the rescue continued, I unstrapped and got out to grab a sandwich and touch base with Valentin. He and his co-driver, Josh, were excited. They were confident and giddy as Val devoured another sandwich, probably his 5th by now.
When the race resumed, it was raining. Hard. I got strapped back into the car. We got the word that conditions were getting pretty nasty at the summit of Pikes Peak. I just wanted to race. My Mom will tell anyone that I can't sit still for five minutes, let alone several of the most nerve racking hours of my life. I was doing everything short of running laps around Sergei to keep focused. We got word that there was another red flag on the mountain. For a brief moment, I had hoped that another red flag would maybe give some time for the weather to pass. It soon became clear that the weather was just settling in for the night, and it started to rain harder at the start line. The race officials came through the class encouraging everyone to change their tires. I would have, but the budget had been so tight this year, that we only had the Hankook Performance Tire slicks that were on the car. I promised them I would drive smart and take it easy on the tires that I did have. It was getting really late in the evening. I began to notice that the fans were coming down the mountain, heading home.
Finally, three cars ahead of me, Val took the green flag. I closed my eyes and whispered "be safe, baby" as his car disappeared down the course. It was close to 5:30 at this point. Earlier in the week, I had been excited that the crew had fixed the clock in my car, but now it was just brutal to watch the time tick by. They sent another car after Valentin, and then nothing. I knew something was up because they usually send cars at an interval of a couple minutes. If they aren't sending cars, something is wrong.
I knew Val was on course, and I was really worried. Silence is the worst part of racing. When nobody says anything, that's when you start to worry. I asked our crew to check with the officials on Val's car. They came back and assured me that Val had finished. I took several deep breaths, and when I looked back up I saw my older brother, David, running towards me down the mountain. He had been sitting a mile up to watch the race. I love my brother dearly, but I don't think that boy has ever run a mile, let alone at that elevation. Over the years, David has remained relatively distant from my racing career. He's been supportive when I needed it, but racing has never been "his thing". When he got to my driver's side window, he was sobbing, out of breath, and hysterical. When he could finally make out a few words all that came out was "Val.... Upside down.... Bottomless"
As a driver, I have accepted that crashes, including rollovers, are just part of racing. But it was at that moment that I realized that as a wife, I hadn't quite accepted that fact. David begged me not to race. He said it was too dangerous, the weather was too bad, and it wasn't meant to happen today. I explained to David that it was something I needed to do. I couldn't not race at this point. I had to go up that mountain. Pikes Peak has been the back bone of my racing career, the mountain was my first love, and I did everything I could possibly to do be back at Pikes Peak in 2012. I had to race.
I began asking questions about what happened to Val, no one really knew. Some people explained to me that he had just bumped a guard rail, some stood by their story that he was at the summit, and David told me he was upside down. Luckily, the folks at My Life at Speed had a radio with one of their photographers that was near where Val's accident had occurred. When they handed me a radio, I heard Val's voice. He told me he was fine, and I simply said "I love you" and handed the radio back to the photographer. It was my turn to race up Pikes Peak. Just before the car in front of me took the green flag, the race officials came down and informed us that conditions were simply too dangerous to run to the summit of the mountain. They had decided to move the finish line to Glen Cove, just about half way up the Peak. My heart sank when I realized that no matter what, I wasn't taking Sergei to the summit.
I didn't know what had happened to Val, I didn't know if he was hurt, if the car was damaged or what. Unsure, scared, and nervous, I took three deep breaths as the green flag dropped in front of me. It was finally my turn to race.